(I have no idea what constitutes a spoiler in this review. So read it at your own risk.)

I haven’t seen too many Hollywood musicals. Considering the overdose of Indian musicals I see daily, there is a certain amount of hesitancy towards Hollywood musicals. I am more comfortable with Indian cinema music as I have grown up with it and there is also a certain fear that I might be able to appreciate or dislike Hollywood musicals only through an Indian eye, or ear for that matter.  When my aunt booked a ticket for La La Land, I hoped that this wouldn’t be the case.

I expected a heartfelt love letter to a near forgotten genre, going by the opening scene of the film, where a long traffic jam led to a dreamy musical number. I was afraid that the film might be a shameless pandering to the Oscar sensibilities, considering their unabashed love towards love stories and quintessential Hollywood genres. Mix both, and voila! A film has the Oscar jury crooning it’s name and firmly stamping it’s glory. The film already secured a number of Golden Globe nominations and was touted to be an Oscar favourite. I was ready to be bored by another sweet, cheesy musical love story, but La La Land kept surprising me further and further. It didn’t merely exceed my rather prejudiced and brash expectations, but traversed deeper into the skin of the characters, the nature of dreams, cinema, death of jazz and ended up being more depressing than one would expect of a musical.

Consider the first number itself, which I so foolishly dismissed. While the number itself sounds positively vibrant and sanguine, there is a degree of uncertainty and frustration beneath the surface. The peppy number is accompanied by an exuberant and sprightly dance as the camera drastically shifts from one person to another after each croons a line. The lyrics reveal their aspirations and the uncertainty of their outcomes, shifting between encouragement and miserable failure. After the end of the song, the camera slowly pans towards one of the protagonists in the car, Mia (Emma Stone), an aspiring actress, thus establishing the tone and themes of the film with one song!

She falls in love with Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a failed jazz musician, who seeks to open a jazz club. The film charts their life together through a series of musical numbers. While the story does seem to be ridiculously simple, the film offers profound insight into the feelings and aspirations of the characters with some comments on the death of cinema and jazz.

It isn’t surprising that Chazelle has chosen two dying genres- musicals and jazz (not exactly a jazz musical), to comprise the structure of the film. The film evokes reminisces of the forgotten past, not just in terms of it’s sparsely used genre(s). The film was shot in glorious Cinemascope (There are no widescreens in India, so I just had to settle for the conventional one.), which was popular in the 50s. The title and the credits were displayed in a classic Hollywood font, with the city of Los Angeles (Home of Hollywood) serving as a supporting character in the film, as the events outside LA aren't shown and a lovely 'City of Stars' song to describe the city of dreams. Even the posters on Mia’s walls comprise only of old Hollywood films, with a king sized (or should I say queen sized?) poster of Ingrid Bergman and not anything relatively modern. The actors were more than just stars in the past, with people looking up to them as models and sometimes imitating the inimitable style of the much coveted actresses*. The films discussed were some of American classics and even some of the shots used, such as the frequent use of the iris shot, echo a near forgotten past. While one might think that Chazelle calls for the spirited revival of the cherished past, he seems to express more sorrow at their downfall.

The meticulous placement of the musical numbers is tied to a single factor- unfulfilled dreams. As the protagonists continue to dream, they revel in their musical numbers which provides them an escape from the depression in their lives. There is an extended period without any such numbers when Sebastian puts his dreams on hold to join an avant garde, pseudo jazz band (Unless you count the song of ‘The Messengers’ as a musical number).  Once they dream together, the words just automatically spring into a free flowing, spirited musical elation. Parallels can be drawn to the escapism offered by cinema itself for some from their lives.  From the starting number onwards, each musical number is a wonderful juxtaposition of their fleeting elation and uncertain future, culminating in a scene at Sebastian’s Jazz club, where both the protagonists have supposedly realized their dreams. As Sebastian plays the theme which first drew them together, Chazelle darkens the entire background except for Sebastian and Mia, and then the scene suddenly segues into an extended, delightful fantasy sequence, where Sebastian and Mia realize their dreams together.  ‘If the movie’s opening and closing production numbers are by far the most impressive and powerful, this is because they’re both responses to realities perceived as unbearable — which becomes all the more unbearable in the latter case by being disguised as a phony happy ending’, writes Jonathan Rosenbaum. The closing number is also the longest in the entire film, their affectionately constructed fantasy, where they drift off temporarily from the shackles of reality towards their most cherished dream. The inherent depression in these numbers, together with evocation of the glorious past makes me believe than Chazelle expresses more pessimism than optimism towards the revival of musicals and jazz. Like the characters in the film, we can just enjoy it temporarily without any lasting effects.

The film is not all steeped in antiquity as it seems to be. Chazelle adopts a free flowing form compared to the quintessential Hollywood musicals, where the camera followed the stars as they danced and sung (From what I have seen), and it’s structurally and thematically similar to the post musicals of the French auteur, Jacques Demy (The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, The Young Girls of Rochefort). The film, like those of Demy’s, evokes the joyous Hollywood musicals undercut with a heavy dose of realism, with the location having to play a major role in the films (L.A in La La Land, Cherbourg and Rochefort in Demy’s films). La La Land comprises of two stellar actors who are not as adept at singing and dancing like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire, with more focus towards their acting and emotions.

The film is not free from flaws. The closing number is a tad overlong and Mia’s playwriting ambitions aren’t quite clear. (Did she merely want to use it boost her acting career? Her attitude initially seemed to balance both.) But this is just me nitpicking. It’s been a while since I saw a film with such ambition, beautifully intercutting between fantasy and reality. Though the ‘Oscar’ tag may give an indication of a wishy washy musical, this film is much more complex than that. Even though Chazelle is pessimistic, I sincerely hope that the film manages to rejuvenate the audience’s interest in musicals and jazz again.

Directed by Damien Chazelle , Starring: Emma Stone, Ryan Gosling, John Legend

*How does an Indian, of all people talk about American role models and actors, you may ask? Well, when Ingrid Bergman had an affair with Rosselini, the government castigated her for destroying the faith of American public and being a poor role model. We do have scandals now, but none of such importance where a Senator makes a comment on an actor’s character. Also, there are numerous literary and film sources which depict the aura which the stars exuded. I do my research, okay??!!!

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